Twenty-four hours ago, I was making immediate preparations to head north, drive as far as I could, then simply stop, find the nearest place where it made sense to pitch in and help out in any way possible. I was prepared to do whatever I could do that would be helpful to someone for about a week, then come back and do some necessary things that will be happening here, then later, when I will be absolved of some local responsibilities, head straight back north.
Circumstances got in the way, and it wasn't to be. Instead of heading north and doing whatever I can for strangers trusting that other people will be helping in the communities where I have people I love, I'm sitting here in my community, worrying-the-hell out of myself whenever I don't hear from one or another northerly friend for a few hours. I've already sent away money that I would normally squander in the course of the fortnight (my "me money"), plus money that others have offered me, divided between the official flood appeal and a direct bank transfer to a friend whose husband and children were away on school holidays when it all got out of control, and who is trying desperately to leave town to join them, one of the people I haven't heard from for a while.
They have a horse stud and a few acres under crops: the water has already destroyed this next year's income for them. If I can find the money she needs for the vehicle to move a few of her more valuable animals before she leaves, then that is at least something saved for them to use when the clean-up is over and they have to start all over again, but the bulk of it is going to the relief fund where it will be distributed between total strangers on the basis of need: I may be aware of the suffering of some people, but by no means all, and I trust humans to display basic humanity in times of crisis and be evenhanded and fair with aid.
Earlier this afternoon I was talking to an elderly Jewish Romanian woman who fled the pogroms of forties and fifties. Even her children are old now, one of them in a local aged-care facility. I think she is fairly lonely now, and while she has never done anything so formal as to visit me, she certainly makes it her business to pop out of doors at about the time of morning I'm likely to be out the front watering my raised vegetable patch (or recycled box-trailer), and have a chat to me. This morning it was pretty difficult to avoid talking about the floods. She is a good Jewish woman, and I know a friend picks her up on the Sabbath and takes her to the prayer meeting of her choice - the nearest synagogue apparently is too far away.
This morning she was shaking her head from side to side. I had just told her that I had been trying to go north to help out, but hadn't succeeded, and was reduced to doing whatever I could do from a distance. I had not mentioned religion at all - hers or mine - when she turned to me, looked me hard in the eye and said something like: "You talk about God. God? Hah! How can you expect me to believe in God after this? When I was just a girl I had to leave my country because God would not stop the brutes, and I thought God was testing my faith. But now God does this? After taking my husband? I have always been careful. I have always prayed. I have always followed the Laws. And God does this? It is all too much. God is not testing our faith. No, this is proof that God doesn't exist at all! How can I believe, hmm? If there was a God, He would stop all this."
This struck me as being terribly, terribly sad. Her love of the Torah and her faith in God had nourished her through a lifetime, probably a longer lifetime than I'll ever have. It had sustained her through years of unthinkable brutality, through having to start up in a new country where she knew no one and nothing, not a person, not the language, not even the food. It helped her raise children in exile, and sustained her when they grew up and left her, one by one. It helped her when her life-partner grew old, grew ill, and died. Her faith survived all of that, burning steadily like a well-stoked furnace, not flickering feebly like a candle near an open window.
But suddenly, with the floods, she crumbled. I asked, and no, she had no relatives or close friends involved. She herself was as bewildered as I was that after a lifetime of being strong, she suddenly crumbled. I suppose it was just one last tragedy in a long line of tragedies, one last straw on that overloaded camel of parable and cliche. She stood there near my vegetable patch, straight and proud, until I impulsively reached out a hand and touched her shoulder. That was just too much - she collapsed into tears on me. I held her until she got a hold of herself, walked her home, made sure she went inside, and extracted a promise that she would ring her daughter and ask her to come over. Then I walked away. I felt bad, but I had things to do, and her daughter would understand her better than I ever could.
After that, I knew I had to renew my efforts: I made more phone calls, this time to friends and acquaintances who were two (or more) car families, seeking to borrow a larger vehicle. But no, I seemed destined to stay here. I did some banking, had an extreme luxury - an iced coffee - with my own daughter, and did other things I needed to do.
On my way home, walking through the summer heat weighed down with some fruit, I passed the corner of her street, and started thinking of her loss of faith again. And again my heart went out to her, but I also started thinking that she wasn't giving Deity much credit. After all, imagine being a Supreme Being. There might be some non-physical beings who take a kindly interest in the fates of humans, but they are likely to be local energies. A Supreme Being, responsible for it all, is bigger than that. They set it all in motion by triggering a Big Bang, and allowing the Laws of Physics, the formation of galactic chains and within the chains individual galacxies, stars and planetrary systems. They made it possible through the laws of physics for evolution to happen and thus for us to develop; but with so many hundreds of billions of stars in each galaxy which are potentially habitable, and so many hundreds of billions of galaxies around, why would they focus on us? We'd be like the individual atoms found in a single flake in a snow-dome on a window-sill.
Then again, consider Deity-as-Pet-Owner. Assume that Deity is conscious of us as a species, possibly even conscious of us as individuals. I used to have a very large tropical aquarium in my living-room in my old house. I had set up the environment, supplying stones, gravel and river-sand. Supplying plants of different species, filtration and on occasion when necessary, pH balancing. I stocked it with a known number of fish, of several different species. They showed every sign of being aware of my presence when I approached the tank, but continued on their ordinary business when I was in the room but didn't approach. May I not have appeared like a looming, unknowable God to any of them who might have thought?
I fed them regularly, providing flakes every day and supplementing them regularly with mosquito larvae - they loved hunting down living food. Every so often to keep the environment healthy, I'd drain off about two-thirds of the contents of the tank, and replace it. It was a large tank so I used a thick hose, and this created turbulence. At such times, I'd also move the stones around, checking the plants for damage and rot, and removing dead or unhealthy bits. This would create more turbulence. Would not any fish in the tank have regarded this as we might regard an earthquake, a storm or - yes, a flood, as an "act of god", causing panic and discomfort, and possibly even death if I wasn't very careful or the fish chose to swim in the wrong direction for my movements?
I created their whole world. I provided everything they needed in their environment for them to stay alive. Every so often, I'd create enormous and probably terrifying turbulence, in an effort to remove contaminants from their environment. And later, there would come a time when I gave the last of them away, and dismantled their environment for ever. That sounds pretty god-like to me - could it not be happening to us on a grander scale? Like me and my fishes, events that from a local eye seem devastating, might have a long-term effect of cleaning up the bigger-picture situation. We talk about annual seasonal cycles - why don't we think about longer seasonal cycles, calculated in decades of multiples of decades? They might also be about planetary cleansing, regarding us as either a species whose complaints should be ignored for the greater good, or worse, the actual contaminating organisms that are being cleaned away.
Perhaps, from a Gods Eye View, we are either the source of a lot of problems, or just an irrelevant species that is too numerous for the size of the "aquarium", anyway. God may have a greater responsibility, to look after the whole of the planet, the whole of the solar system, the whole of the galaxy. All of us agree that mankind has out-bred our resources: that's why the "average" Australian lifestyle would require seven Earth-sized planets to maintain if we managed to give everyone alive the same standard of living. Why would God have to be seen by religious people to nurture a species that is out of control? Why wouldn't God prune them slightly, tie them back as a tender gardener ties back pruned wines, keeping the garden more organised and more fruitful that way?